The Right Words

by Jon Roth, Class of 2010

As I write this, I am probably more nervous than I’ve ever been. Not the heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed anxiety you get before a performance or a presentation, but something more subtle and difficult to define. Well, not too difficult: I’m scared to graduate. The past seventeen years of education should have prepared me for this (graduating is the point, right?) but I’ve never dared look past the midterms and final papers to the inevitable conclusion. On Sunday, years of learning will be transformed into a degree, and I’ll walk off Graduation Hill both elated and terrified at the prospect of never again discussing Ulysses, or singing in Skinner, or walking around Sunset Lake with a cigarette and my thoughts. A good chunk of what I’ve learned will only be pertinent if I’m playing Jeopardy from home.

Maybe I’m more worried than most-I’ve been in boarding schools for over half my life, and the prospect of living on my own without a dorm full of like-minded bright young things will take a lot of getting used to. Vassar, in particular, has given me more than I could ever expect. On my revisit day, I could immediately tell (I think most of you could, too) that the students here are exceptional. Not exceptional in that tri-varsity-athlete-straight-A-student-aspiring-biochemist kind of way (though there’s that, too) but exceptional for their character. I received some small confirmation of this when my friend’s father said, “The kids at Vassar know what’s up. I like their head space.”

I don’t know how to define “head space” exactly. Does it mean we’re liberal? Probably, but “liberal” is a tricky word to pin down, and it often ends up sounding like one-half of a bipartisan conflict. Thankfully, there is also the liberal arts, the sort of education thanks to which I’m able to use the Oxford English Dictionary to pick out convenient definitions. The first: “Liberal-the distinctive epithet of those arts or sciences considered worthy of a free man,” and then there’s “free of restraint, free in speech or action,” and my personal favorite: “free in bestowing, bountiful, generous, open-hearted.” Some of you have maybe learned this already, but if you ever can’t find the words for something, let the Oxford English Dictionary do it for you.

I’ve had the good fortune at Vassar to work with incredible writers, both teachers and students. From my freshman writing seminar to Senior Composition, my experience at Vassar has been one of always reaching to find the right words. Working in the Writing Center, I’ve read and revised countless papers by my friends and peers, and every time I read something new I’m astounded by the variety and depth of knowledge on display. All I have to do is show up to work, and inadvertently I learn about shifts in magnetic poles, Utilitarianism, Coca-Cola marketing strategies in China and the detective stories of Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve concluded, after almost four years of writing and editing, that one thing will make a fantastic paper: passion. If you don’t care about your argument, neither will anyone else.

The trick is to find that argument, to find that passion, the one thing that gets you so excited you’ll just die if you can’t tell someone else about it. That’s the point of writing, the point of any communication at all. I’m nervous now, but I do know what I care about, and I’m going to write it like crazy now that I’ve got a diploma and no excuse not to.

Thanks for four great years. I think every graduating senior has found something at Vassar that has changed them and made them better. I encourage you all to be free in bestowing, bountiful, generous and open-hearted with what you’ve learned.